Apportionment and Districting

Apportionment and Districting.—Prior to 1962, attacks in federal courts on the drawing of boundaries for congressional and legislative election districts or the apportionment of seats to previously existing units ran afoul of the "political question" doctrine.1807 But Baker v. Carr1808 reinterpreted the doctrine in considerable degree and opened the federal courts to voter complaints founded on unequally populated voting districts. Wesberry v. Sanders1809 found in Article I, § 2, of the Constitution a command that in the election of Members of the House of Representatives districts were to be made up of substantially equal numbers of persons. In six decisions handed down on June 15, 1964, the Court required the alteration of the election districts for practically all the legislative bodies in the United States.1810

1807 See discussion, supra. Applicability of the doctrine to cases of this nature was left unresolved in Smiley v. Holm, 285 U.S. 355 (1932), and Wood v. Broom, 287 U.S. 1 (1932), was supported by only a plurality in Colegrove v. Green, 328 U.S. 549 (1946), but became the position of the Court in subsequent cases. Cook v. Fortson, 329 U.S. 675 (1946); Colegrove v. Barrett, 330 U.S. 804 (1947); MacDougall v. Green, 335 U.S. 281 (1948); South v. Peters, 339 U.S. 276 (1950); Hartsfield v. Sloan, 357 U.S. 916 (1958).

1808 369 U.S. 186 (1962).

1809 376 U.S. 1 (1964). Striking down a county unit system of electing a governor, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Douglas, had already coined a variant phrase of the more popular "one man, one vote." "The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote." Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368, 381 (1963).

1810 Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964); WMCA, Inc. v. Lomenzo, 377 U.S. 633 (1964); Maryland Comm. for Fair Representation v. Tawes, 377 U.S. 656 (1964); Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678 (1964); Roman v. Sincock, 377 U.S. 695 (1964); Lucas v. Forty-Fourth General Assembly of Colorado, 377 U.S. 713 (1964). In the last case, the Court held that approval of the apportionment plan in a vote of the people was insufficient to preserve it from constitutional attack. "An individual's constitutionally protected right to cast an equally weighed vote cannot be denied even by a vote of a majority of a State's electorate, if the apportionment scheme adopted by the voters fails to measure up to the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause." Id. at 736. Justice Harlan dissented wholly, denying that the equal protection clause had any application at all to apportionment and districting and contending that the decisions were actually the result of a "reformist" nonjudicial attitude on the part of the Court. 377 U.S. at 589. Justices Stewart and Clark dissented in two and concurred in four cases on the basis of their view that the equal protection clause was satisfied by a plan that was rational and that did not systematically frustrate the majority will. 377 U.S. at 741, 744.

"We hold that, as a basic constitutional standard, the Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis. Simply stated, an individual's right to vote for state legislators is unconstitutionally impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with the votes of citizens living in other parts of the State."1811 What was required was that each State "make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly of equal population as is practicable. We realize that it is a practical impossibility to arrange legislative districts so that each one has an identical number of residents, or citizens, or voters. Mathematical exactness or precision is hardly a workable constitutional requirement."1812

Among the principal issues raised by these decisions were which units were covered by the principle, to what degree of exactness population equality had to be achieved, and to what other elements of the apportionment and districting process the equal protection clause extended.

The first issue has largely been resolved, although some few problem areas persist. It has been held that a school board the members of which were appointed by boards elected in units of disparate populations and which exercised only administrative powers rather than legislative powers was not subject to the principle of the apportionment ruling.1813 Avery v. Midland County1814 held that when a State delegates lawmaking power to local government and provides for the election by district of the officials to whom the power is delegated, the districts must be established of substantially equal populations. But in Hadley v. Junior College District,1815 the Court abandoned much of the limitation which was explicit in these two decisions and held that whenever a State chooses to vest "governmental functions" in a body and to elect the members of that body from districts, the districts must have substantially equal populations. The "governmental functions" should not be characterized as "legislative" or "administrative" or necessarily important or unimportant; it is the fact that members of the body are elected from districts which triggers the application.1816

1811 Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 568 (1964).

1812 377 U.S. at 577.

The second issue has been largely but not precisely resolved. In Swann v. Adams,1817 the Court set aside a lower court ruling "for the failure of the State to present or the District Court to articulate acceptable reasons for the variations among the populations of the various legislative districts… De minimis deviations are unavoidable, but variations of 30% among senate districts and 40% among house districts can hardly be deemed de minimis and none of our cases suggests that differences of this magnitude will be approved without a satisfactory explanation grounded on acceptable state policy." Two congressional district cases were disposed of on the basis of Swann,1818 but when the Court ruled that no congressional districting could be approved without a "good-faith effort to achieve precise mathematical equality" or the justification of "each variance, no matter how small,"1819 it did not then purport to utilize this standard in judging legislative apportionment and districting.1820 And in Abate v. Mundt1821 the Court approved a plan for apportioning a county governing body which permitted a substantial population disparity, explaining that in the absence of a built-in bias tending to favor any particular area or interest, a plan could take account of localized factors in justifying deviations from equality which might in other circumstances cause the invalidation of a plan.1822 The total population deviation allowed in Abate was 11.9%; the Court refused, however, to extend Abate to approve a total deviation of 78% resulting from an apportionment plan providing for representation of each of New York City's five boroughs on the New York City Board of Estimate.1823

1813 Sailors v. Board of Education, 387 U.S. 105 (1967).

1814 390 U.S. 474 (1968). Justice Harlan continued his dissent from the Reynolds line of cases, id. at 486, while Justices Fortas and Stewart called for a more discerning application and would not have applied the principle to the county council here. Id. at 495, 509.

1815 397 U.S. 50 (1970). The governmental body here was the board of trustees of a junior college district. Justices Harlan and Stewart and Chief Justice Burger dissented. Id. at 59, 70.

1816 The Court observed that there might be instances "in which a State elects certain functionaries whose duties are so far removed from normal governmental activities and so disproportionately affect different groups that a popular election in compliance with Reynolds supra, might not be required…" Id. at 56. For cases involving such units, see Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Water Storage Dist., 410 U.S. 719 (1973); Associated Enterprises v. Toltec Watershed Imp. Dist., 410 U.S. 743 (1973); Ball v. James, 451 U.S. 355 (1981). Judicial districts need not comply with Reynolds. Wells v. Edwards, 347 F. Supp. 453 (M.D. La. 1972) (three-judge court), aff'd. per curiam, 409 U.S. 1095 (1973).

1817 385 U.S. 440, 443-44 (1967). See also Kilgarlin v. Hill, 386 U.S. 120 (1967).

1818 Kirkpatrick v. Preisler, 385 U.S. 450 (1967); Duddleston v. Grills, 385 U.S. 455 (1967).

1819 Kirkpatrick v. Preisler, 394 U.S. 526, 530-31 (1969); Wells v. Rockefeller, 394 U.S. 542 (1969). The Court has continued to adhere to this strict standard for congressional districting, voiding a plan in which the maximum deviation between largest and smallest district was 0.7%, or 3,674 persons. Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725 (1983) (rejecting assertion that deviations less than estimated census error are necessarily permissible).

1820 The Court relied on Swann in disapproving of only slightly smaller deviations (roughly 28% and 25%) in Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124, 161-63 (1971). In Connor v. Williams, 404 U.S. 549, 550 (1972), the Court said of plaintiffs' reliance on Preisler and Wells that "these decisions do not squarely control the instant appeal since they do not concern state legislative apportionment, but they do raise substantial questions concerning the constitutionality of the District Court's plan as a design for permanent apportionment."

1821 403 U.S. 182 (1971).

1822 It should also be noted that while the Court has used total population figures for purposes of computing variations between districts, it did approve in Burns v. Richardson, 384 U.S. 73 (1966), the use of eligible voter population as the basis for apportioning in the context of a State with a large transient military population, but with the caution that such a basis would be permissible only so long as the results did not diverge substantially from that obtained by using a total population base. Merely discounting for military populations was disapproved in Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678, 691 (1964), but whether some more precise way of distinguishing between resident and nonresident population would be constitutionally permissible is unclear. Kirkpatrick v. Preisler, 394 U.S. 526, 534 (1969); Hadley v. Junior College Dist., 397 U.S. 50, 57 n.9 (1970).

1823 New York City Bd. of Estimate v. Morris, 489 U.S. 688 (1989). Under the plan each of the City's five boroughs was represented on the board by its president and each of these members had one vote; three citywide elected officials (the mayor, the comptroller, and the president of the city council) were also placed on the board and given two votes apiece (except that the mayor had no vote on the acceptance or modification of his budget proposal). The Court also ruled that, when measuring population deviation for a plan that mixes at-large and district representation, the at-large representation must be taken into account. Id. at 699-701.

Nine years after Reynolds v. Sims, the Court reexamined the population equality requirement of the apportionment cases. Relying upon language in prior decisions that distinguished state legislative apportionment from congressional districting as possibly justifying different standards of permissible deviations from equality, the Court held that more flexibility is constitutionally permissible with respect to the former than to the latter.1824 But it was in determining how much greater flexibility was permissible that the Court moved in new directions. First, applying the traditional standard of rationality rather than the strict test of compelling necessity, the Court held that a maximum 16.4% deviation from equality of population was justified by the State's policy of maintaining the integrity of political subdivision lines, or according representation to subdivisions qua subdivisions, because the legislature was responsible for much local legislation.1825 Second, just as the first case "demonstrates, population deviations among districts may be sufficiently large to require justification but nonetheless be justified and legally sustainable. It is now time to recognize . . . that minor deviations from mathematical equality among state legislative districts are insufficient to make out a prima facie case of invidious discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment so as to require justification by the State."1826 This recognition of a de minimis deviation, below which no justification was necessary, was mandated, the Court felt, by the margin of error in census statistics, by the population change over the ten-year life of an apportionment, and by the relief it afforded federal courts able thus to avoid over-involvement in essentially a political process. The "goal of fair and effective representation" is furthered by eliminating gross population variations among districts, but it is not achieved by mathematical equality solely. Other relevant factors are to be taken into account.1827 But when a judicially-imposed plan is to be formulated upon state default, it "must ordinarily achieve the goal of population equality with little more than de minimis variation" and deviations from approximate population equality must be supported by enunciation of historically significant state policy or unique features.1828

1824 Mahan v. Howell, 410 U.S. 315, 320-25 (1973).

1825 410 U.S. at 325-30. The Court indicated that a 16.4% deviation "may well approach tolerable limits." Id. at 329. Dissenting, Justices Brennan, Douglas, and Marshall would have voided the plan; additionally, they thought the deviation was actually 23.6% and that the plan discriminated geographically against one section of the State, an issue not addressed by the Court. In Chapman v. Meier, 420 U.S. 1, 21-26 (1975), holding that a 20% variation in a court-developed plan was not justified, the Court indicated that such a deviation in a legislatively-produced plan would be quite difficult to justify. See also Summers v. Cenarrusa, 413 U.S. 906 (1973) (vacating and remanding for further consideration the approval of a 19.4% deviation). But see Voinovich v. Quilter, 507 U.S. 146 (1993) (vacating and remanding for further consideration the rejection of a deviation in excess of 10% intended to preserve political subdivision boundaries). In Brown v. Thomson, 462 U.S. 835 (1983), the Court held that a consistent state policy assuring each county at least one representative can justify substantial deviation from population equality when only the marginal impact of representation for the state's least populous county was challenged (the effect on plaintiffs, voters in larger districts, was that they would elect 28 of 64 members rather than 28 of 63), but there was indication in Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion that a broader-based challenge to the plan, which contained a 16% average deviation and an 89% maximum deviation, could have succeeded.

1826 Gaffney v. Cummings, 412 U.S. 735, 745 (1973). The maximum deviation was 7.83%. The Court did not precisely indicate at what point a deviation had to be justified, but it applied the de minimis standard in White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973), in which the maximum deviation was 9.9%. "Very likely, larger differences between districts would not be tolerable without justifications." Id. at 764. Justices Brennan, Douglas, and Marshall dissented. See also Brown v. Thomson, 462 U.S. 835, 842 (1983): "Our decisions have established, as a general matter, that an apportionment plan with a maximum population deviation under 10% falls within [the] category of minor deviations [insufficient to make out a prima facie case]."

1827 Gaffney v. Cummings, 412 U.S. 735, 748 (1973). By contrast, the Court has held that estimated margin of error for census statistics does not justify deviation from population equality in congressional districting. Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725 (1983).

1828 Chapman v. Meier, 420 U.S. 1, 21-27 (1975). The Court did say that court-ordered reapportionment of a state legislature need not attain the mathematical preciseness required for congressional redistricting. Id. at 27 n.19. Apparently, therefore, the Court's reference to both "de minimis" variations and "approximate population equality" must be read as referring to some range approximating the Gaffney principle. See also Connor v. Finch, 431 U.S. 407 (1977).

Gerrymandering and the permissible use of multimember districts present examples of the third major issue. It is clear that racially based gerrymandering is unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment, at least when it is accomplished through the manipulation of district lines.1829 Even if racial gerrymandering is intended to benefit minority voting populations, it is subject to strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause if racial considerations are the dominant and controlling rationale in drawing district lines.1830 Showing that a district's "bizarre" shape departs from traditional districting principles such as compactness, contiguity, and respect for political subdivision lines may serve to reinforce such a claim,1831 although a plurality of the Justices would not preclude the creation of "reasonably compact" majority-minority districts in order to remedy past discrimination or to comply with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.1832 On the other hand, the Court appears to have more recently weakened a challenger's ability to establish Equal Protection claims by showing both a strong deference to a legislature's articulation of legitimate political explanations for districting decisions, and by allowing for a strong correlation between race and political affiliation.1833

1829 Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960); Wright v. Rockefeller, 376 U.S. 52 (1964); Sims v. Baggett, 247 F. Supp. 96 (M.D. Ala. 1965) (three-judge court). Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541 (1999).

1830 Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900 (1995) (drawing congressional district lines in order to comply with § 5 of the Voting Rights Act as interpreted by the Department of Justice not a compelling governmental interest).

1831 Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900 (1995); Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993). See also Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996) (creating an unconventionally-shaped majority-minority congressional district in one portion of state in order to alleviate effect of fragmenting geographically compact minority population in another portion of state does not remedy a violation of § 2 of Voting Rights Act, and is thus not a compelling governmental interest).

1832 Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952, 979 (1996) (opinion of Justice O'Connor, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Kennedy) (also involving congressional districts).

Partisan gerrymandering raises more difficult issues. Several lower courts ruled that the issue was beyond judicial cognizance,1834 and the Supreme Court itself, upholding an apportionment plan frankly admitted to have been drawn with the intent to achieve a rough approximation of the statewide political strengths of the two parties, recognized the goal as legitimate and observed that, while the manipulation of apportionment and districting is not wholly immune from judicial scrutiny, "we have not ventured far or attempted the impossible task of extirpating politics from what are the essentially political processes of the sovereign States."1835

More recently, however, in a decision of potentially major import reminiscent of Baker v. Carr, the Court in Davis v. Bandemer1836 ruled that partisan gerrymandering in state legislative redistricting is justiciable under the Equal Protection Clause. But although the vote was 6 to 3 in favor of justiciability, a majority of Justices could not agree on the proper test for determining whether particular gerrymandering is unconstitutional, and the lower court's holding of unconstitutionality was reversed by vote of 7 to 2.1837 Thus, while courthouse doors are now ajar for claims of partisan gerrymandering, it is unclear what it will take to succeed on the merits.

On the justiciability issue, the Court viewed the "political question" criteria as no more applicable than they had been in Baker v. Carr. Because Reynolds v. Sims had declared "fair and effective representation for all citizens"1838 to be "the basic aim of legislative apportionment," and because racial gerrymandering issues had been treated as justiciable, the Court viewed the representational issues raised by partisan gerrymandering as indistinguishable. Agreement as to the existence of "judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving" gerrymandering issues, however, did not result in a consensus as to what those standards are.1839 While a majority of Justices agreed that discriminatory effect as well as discriminatory intent must be shown, there was significant disagreement as to what constitutes discriminatory effect. Justice White's plurality opinion suggested that there need be "evidence of continued frustration of the will of a majority of the voters or effective denial to a minority of voters of a fair chance to influence the political process."1840 Moreover, continued frustration of the chance to influence the political process can not be demonstrated by the results of only one election; there must be a history of disproportionate results or a finding that such results will continue. Justice Powell, joined by Justice Stevens, did not formulate a strict test, but suggested that "a heavy burden of proof" should be required, and that courts should look to a variety of factors as they relate to "the fairness of a redistricting plan" in determining whether it contains invalid gerrymandering. Among these factors are the shapes of the districts, adherence to established subdivision lines, statistics relating to vote dilution, the nature of the legislative process by which the plan was formulated, and evidence of intent revealed in legislative history.1841

In the following years, however, litigants seeking to apply Davis against alleged partisan gerrymandering were generally unsuccessful. Then, when the Supreme Court revisited the issue in 2004, it all but closed the door on such challenges. In Vieth v. Jubelirer,81 a four-Justice plurality would have overturned Davis v. Bandemer’s holding that challenges to political gerrymandering are justiciable, but five Justices disagreed. The plurality argued that partisan considerations are an intrinsic part of establishing districts,82 that no judicially discernable or manageable standards exist to evaluate unlawful partisan gerrymandering, and that the power to address the issue of political gerrymandering83 resides in Congress.84

Of the five Justices who believed that challenges to political gerrymandering are justiciable, four dissented, but Justice Kennedy concurred with the four-Justice plurality’s holding, thereby upholding Pennsylvania’s congressional redistricting plan against a political gerrymandering challenge. Justice Kennedy agreed that the lack” of any agreed upon model of fair and effective representation” or “substantive principles of fairness in districting” left the Court with “no basis on which to define clear, manageable, and politically neutral standards for measuring the particular burden a given partisan classification imposes on representational rights.”85 But, though he concurred in the holding, Justice Kennedy held out hope that judicial relief from political gerrymandering may be possible “if some limited and precise rationale were found” to evaluate partisan redistricting. Davis v. Bandemer was thus preserved.86

In League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, a widely splintered Supreme Court plurality largely upheld a Texas congressional redistricting plan that the state legislature had drawn mid-decade, seemingly with the sole purpose of achieving a Republican congressional majority.87 The plurality did not revisit the justiciability question, but examined “whether appellants’ claims offer the Court a manageable, reliable measure of fairness for determining whether a partisan gerrymander violates the Constitution.”88 The plurality was “skeptical . . . of a claim that seeks to invalidate a statute based on a legislature’s unlawful motive but does so without reference to the content of the legislation enacted.” For one thing, although “[t]he legislature does seem to have decided to redistrict with the sole purpose of achieving a Republican congressional majority, . . . partisan aims did not guide every line it drew.”89 Apart from that, the “sole-motivation theory” fails to show what is necessary to identify an unconstitutional act of partisan gerrymandering: “a burden, as measured by a reliable standard, on the complainants’ representational rights.”90 Moreover, “[t]he sole-intent standard . . . is no more compelling when it is linked to . . . mid-decennial legislation… [T]here is nothing inherently suspect about a legislature’s decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with one of its own. And even if there were, the fact of mid-decade redistricting alone is no sure indication of unlawful political gerrymanders.”91 The plurality also found “that mid-decade redistricting for exclusively partisan purposes” did not in this case “violate[ ] the one-person, one-vote requirement.”92 Because ordinary mid-decade districting plans do not necessarily violate the one-person, one-vote requirement, the only thing out of the ordinary with respect to the Texas plan was that it was motivated solely by partisan considerations, and the plurality had already rejected the sole-motivation theory.93 League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry thus left earlier Court precedent essentially unchanged. Claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering are justiciable, but a reliable measure of what constitutes unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering remains to be found.

1833 Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234 (2001).

1834 E.g., WMCA, Inc. v. Lomenzo, 238 F. Supp. 916 (S.D.N.Y. 1965) (three-judge court), aff'd, 382 U.S. 4 (1965); Sincock v. Gately, 262 F. Supp. 739 (D. Del. 1967) (three-judge court).

1835 Gaffney v. Cummings, 412 U.S. 735, 751, 754 (1973).

1836 478 U.S. 109 (1986). The vote on justiciability was 6-3, with Justice White's opinion of the Court being joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, and Stevens. This represented an apparent change of view by 3 of the majority Justices, who just 2 years earlier had denied that "the existence of noncompact or gerrymandered districts is by itself a constitutional violation." Karcher v. Daggett, 466 U.S. 910, 917 (1983) (Justice Brennan, joined by Justices White and Marshall, dissenting from denial of stay in challenge to district court's rejection of a remedial districting plan on the basis that it contained "an intentional gerrymander").

1837 Only Justices Powell and Stevens thought the Indiana redistricting plan void; Justice White, joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, thought the record inadequate to demonstrate continuing discriminatory impact, and Justice O'Connor, joined by Chief Justice Burger and by Justice Rehnquist, would have ruled that partisan gerrymandering is nonjusticiable as constituting a political question not susceptible to manageable judicial standards.

1838 377 U.S. 533, 565-66 (1964). This phrase has had a life of its own in the commentary. See D. Alfange, Jr., Gerrymandering and the Constitution: Into the Thorns of the Thicket at Last, 1986 SUP. CT. REV. 175, and sources cited therein. It is not clear from its original context, however, that the phrase was coined with such broad application in mind.

1839 The quotation is from the Baker v. Carr measure for existence of a political question, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962).

1840 478 U.S. at 133. Joining in this part of the opinion were Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun.

1841 478 U.S. at 173. A similar approach had been proposed in Justice Stevens' concurring opinion in Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725, 744 (1983).

81 541 U.S. 267 (2004).

82 541 U.S. at 285-86.

83 541 U.S. at 281-90.

84 541 U.S. at 271 (noting that Article I, § 4 provides that Congress may alter state laws regarding the manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives).

85 541 U.S. at 307-08 (Justice Kennedy, concurring).

86 541 U.S. at 306 (Justice Kennedy, concurring). Although Justice Kennedy admitted that no workable model had been proposed either to evaluate the burden partisan districting imposed on representational rights or to confine judicial intervention once a violation has been established, he held out the possibility that such a standard may emerge, based on either equal protection or First Amendment principles.

87 548 U.S. 399, 417 (2006). The design of one congressional district was held to violate the Voting Rights Act because it diluted the voting power of Latinos. Id. at 423-443.

88 548 U.S. at 414.

89 548 U.S. at 418, 417.

90 548 U.S. at 418.

91 548 U.S. at 419.

92 548 U.S. at 420-21.

93 548 U.S. at 422.

It had been thought that the use of multimember districts to submerge racial, ethnic, and political minorities might be treated differently,1842 but in Whitcomb v. Chavis1843 the Court, while dealing with the issue on the merits, so enveloped it in strict standards of proof and definitional analysis as to raise the possibility that it might be beyond judicial review. In Chavis the Court held that inasmuch as the multimember districting represented a state policy of more than 100 years observance and could not therefore be said to be motivated by racial or political bias, only an actual showing that the multimember delegation in fact inadequately represented the allegedly submerged minority would suffice to raise a constitutional question. But the Court also rejected as impermissible the argument that any interest group had any sort of right to be represented in a legislative body, in proportion to its members' numbers or on some other basis, so that the failure of that group to elect anyone merely meant that alone or in combination with other groups it simply lacked the strength to obtain enough votes, whether the election be in single-member or in multimember districts. That fact of life was not of constitutional dimension, whether the group was composed of blacks, or Republicans or Democrats, or some other category of persons. Thus, the submerging argument was rejected, as was the argument of a voter in another county that the Court should require uniform single-member districting in populous counties because voters in counties which elected large delegations in blocs had in effect greater voting power than voters in other districts; this argument the Court found too theoretical and too far removed from the actualities of political life.

1842 Fortson v. Dorsey, 379 U.S. 433, 439 (1965); Burns v. Richardson, 384 U.S. 73, 88-89 (1965); Kilgarlin v. Hill, 386 U.S. 120, 125 n.3 (1967).

1843 403 U.S. 124 (1971). Justice Harlan concurred specially, id. at 165, and Justices Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall, dissented, finding racial discrimination in the operation of the system. Id. at 171.

Subsequently, and surprisingly in light of Chavis, the Court in White v. Regester1844 affirmed a district court invalidation of the use of multimember districts in two Texas counties on the ground that, when considered in the totality of the circumstances of discrimination in registration and voting and in access to other political opportunities, such use denied African Americans and Mexican Americans the opportunity to participate in the election process in a reliable and meaningful manner.1845

Doubt was cast on the continuing vitality of White v. Regester, however, by the badly split opinion of the Court in City of Mobile v. Bolden.1846 A plurality undermined the earlier case in two respects, although it is not at all clear that a majority of the Court had been or could be assembled on either point. First, the plurality argued that an intent to discriminate on the part of the redistricting body must be shown before multimember districting can be held to violate the equal protection clause.1847 Second, the plurality read White v. Regester as being consistent with this principle and the various factors developed in that case to demonstrate the existence of unconstitutional discrimination to be in fact indicia of intent; however, the plurality seemingly disregarded the totality of circumstances test utilized in Regester and evaluated instead whether each factor alone was sufficient proof of intent.1848

1844 412 U.S. 755, 765-70 (1973).

1845 "To sustain such claims, it is not enough that the racial group allegedly discriminated against has not had legislative seats in proportion to its voting potential. The plaintiffs' burden is to produce evidence to support findings that the political processes leading to nomination and election were not equally open to participation by the group in question—that its members had less opportunity than did other residents in the district to participate in the political processes and to elect legislators of their choice." 412 U.S. at 765-66.

1846 446 U.S. 55 (1980).

1847 446 U.S. at 65-68 (Justices Stewart, Powell, Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Burger). On intent versus impact analysis, see discussion supra. Justices Blackmun and Stevens concurred on other grounds, id. at 80, 83, and Justices White, Brennan, and Marshall dissented. Id. at 94, 103. Justice White agreed that purposeful discrimination must be found, id. at 101, while finding it to have been shown, Justice Blackmun assumed that intent was required, and Justices Stevens, Brennan, and Marshall would not so hold.

1848 446 U.S. at 68-74. Four Justices rejected this view of the plurality, while Justice Stevens also appeared to do so but followed a mode of analysis significantly different than that of any other Justice.

Again switching course, the Court in Rogers v. Lodge1849 approved the findings of the lower courts that a multimember electoral system for electing a county board of commissioners was being maintained for a racially discriminatory purpose, although it had not been instituted for that purpose. Applying a totality of the circumstances test, and deferring to lower court factfinding, the Court, in an opinion by one of the Mobile dissenters, canvassed a range of factors which it held could combine to show a discriminatory motive, and largely overturned the limitations which the Mobile plurality had attempted to impose in this area. With the enactment of federal legislation specifically addressed to the issue of multimember districting and dilution of the votes of racial minorities, however, it may be that the Court will have little further opportunity to develop the matter in the context of constitutional litigation.1850 In Thornburg v. Gingles,1851 the Court held that multi-member districting violates § 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of a racial minority when that minority is "sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district," when it is politically cohesive, and when block voting by the majority "usually" defeats preferred candidates of the minority.

1849 458 U.S. 613 (1982). Joining the opinion of the Court were Justices White, Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, O'Connor, and Chief Justice Burger. Dissenting were Justices Powell and Rehnquist, id. at 628, and Justice Stevens. Id. at 631.

1850 On the legislation, see "Congressional Definition of Fourteenth Amendment Rights," supra.

1851 478 U.S. 30, 50-51 (1986). Use of multimember districting for purposes of political gerrymandering was at issue in Davis v. Bandemer, 478 U.S. 109 (1986), decided the same day as Gingles, but there was no agreement as to the appropriate constitutional standard. A plurality led by Justice White relied on the Whitcomb v. Chavis reasoning, suggesting that proof that multimember districts were constructed for the advantage of one political party falls short of the necessary showing of deprivation of opportunity to participate in the electoral process. 478 U.S. at 136- 37. Two Justices thought the proof sufficient for a holding of invalidity, the minority party having won 46% of the vote but only 3 of 21 seats from the multimember districts, and "the only discernible pattern [being] the appearance of these districts in areas where their winner-take-all aspects can best be employed to debase [one party's] voting strength," (id. at 179-80, Justices Powell and Stevens), and three Justices thought political gerrymandering claims to be nonjusticiable.

Finally, it should be said that the Court has approved the discretionary exercise of equity powers by the lower federal courts in drawing district boundaries and granting other relief in districting and apportionment cases,1852 although that power is bounded by the constitutional violations found, so that courts do not have carte blanche, and they should ordinarily respect the structural decisions made by state legislatures and the state constitutions.1853

1852 E.g., Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 586-87 (1964); Sixty-Seventh Minnesota State Senate v. Beens, 406 U.S. 187, 195-200 (1972); White v. Weiser, 412 U.S. 783, 794-95 (1973); Upham v. Seamon, 456 U.S. 37, 41-42 (1982). When courts draw their own plans, the court is held to tighter standards than is a legislature and has to observe smaller population deviations and utilize single-member districts more than multimember ones. Connor v. Johnson, 402 U.S. 690, 692 (1971); Chapman v. Meier, 420 U.S. 1, 14-21 (1975); Wise v. Lipscomb, 437 U.S. 535, 540 (1978). Cf. Mahan v. Howell, 410 U.S. 315, 333 (1973).

1853 E.g., Sixty-Seventh Minnesota State Senate v. Beens, 406 U.S. 187 (1972) (reduction of numbers of members); Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124, 160-61 (1971) (disregard of policy of multimember districts not found unconstitutional); White v. Weiser, 412 U.S. 783, 794-95 (1973); Upham v. Seamon, 406 U.S. 37 (1982). But see Karcher v. Daggett, 466 U.S. 910 (1983) (denying cert. over dissent's suggestion that court-adopted congressional districting plan had strayed too far from the structural framework of the legislature's invalidated plan).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014